The secret to successful nonviolent struggle lies in understanding strategy and systems. All systems require participation and resources to survive. Deny those things, and the system will wither away … or concede to meet your demands.
Strategy can be that simple. Cut off the water and the plants will die. Block all other exits and the rabbit will come out the hole in front of you. Surround the castle and cut off the food supply and the people will surrender – or starve. Give Archimedes a lever long enough (and a pivot upon which to place it) and he can move the world. If workers can sustain a strike and keep out scabs then the business owner must raise wages – or lose productivity. If all investors divest from fossil fuels then the industry has no capital with which to continue operating. If everyone boycotts palm oil then there’s no profit in clear cutting the rainforest.
Simple strategies. Clear levers. Effective change.
Of course, we all know it can get waaaaay more complicated. The science of making change with nonviolent action can sometimes look more like quantum physics. In fact, the lens of ecosystems and evolution might be the most useful metaphor for how complex system change affects economics, politics, social behaviors, psychology, worldviews, education and much more. We’re often not just changing a single tree, or even a forest of trees, but the entire ecosystem of the watershed, plants, animals, mycelium, erosion, atmosphere, and climate that surrounds the issue we’re working on!
When we’re working for change, we need to think on both levels. We need to understand the complex fields of social, political, economic, and cultural behaviors. We also need to know exactly where to place, pivot, and pull the lever long enough to move our world. Underneath the complexity, there’s often a simple and straightforward explanation for what’s driving the shifts. (Prolonged drought turns a grassland into a desert. A landslide dams up a river. A new housing development drives bears further north.) Change happens when we disrupt an old system strongly enough that it must adapt or risk collapse. Our job as organizers and strategic thinkers is to analyze the complex web of what underlies the injustice. Then we must figure out how to non-cooperate with and/or intervene in the old system to such a degree that it concedes to our demands or ceases to exist. In this way, we have the power to halt and deconstruct powerful, oppressive systems.
The strategic power of nonviolent struggle rests in the inarguable truth that all systems require resources to operate, indeed even to exist. The Pillars of Support model first proposed by Gene Sharp and later adapted by numerous organizing groups helps us understand this. By placing a dictator on top of a series of pillars, such as “human resources”, “material resources”, “sanction power”, “skills and knowledge”, and others, the model demonstrates that when you remove the pillars, the dictator cannot maintain his position. He – and his regime – crumbles. This model uses the metaphor of gravity and stone edifices to explain how power works. A dictator without access to resources and obedience is just a little man in a room throwing a temper tantrum.
That basic theory holds true for all systems. A corporation without financing, workers, suppliers, staff, supplies, communications, customers and so on, cannot do business. A school without students, tuition payments, teachers, and administration cannot continue to operate. A nonprofit without donors, members, or the ability to function at its stated tasks will not exist except in name. Everything from a social club like the Rotary Club to a practice like segregated lunch counters to a worldview like “survival of the fittest” relies on the participation and cooperation of many parts. Without them, the organization or system must either adapt or cease to exist.
When we are working for change, this is the knowledge that we must tap into strategically. We must understand the system we seek to change. We must identify the resources it uses. And we must withhold those resources either by refusing to give our cooperation to the system or by using nonviolent action to intervene in the operation of the system. We can do this temporarily in pursuit of a demand (like going on strike for higher wages) or permanently to stop a destructive practice (like divesting from fossil fuels).
We can also use the power of systems to create the new. This is known as building parallel or alternative institutions (a famous example is the Continental Congress that usurped British Rule in the early colonies of the United States), or crafting constructive programs (such as Gandhi’s salt and spinning wheel campaigns). When working to create the new systems, the most strategic projects begin by gathering overlooked resources. Then, they pull the resources of people, money, time, skill, and participation away from the old, destructive system. Finally, in the third stage of a constructive program, the project directly challenges the old system, using acts of noncooperation and intervention to redirect the resources and participation from the old to the new. (Sometimes, this third stage is precipitated by the old system’s attack on the new system.)
Many of the nonviolent tactics being used in our movements are acts of protest and persuasion. They have a role in the struggle and can be fun, useful, and effective at opening minds and rallying allies. But they are often not enough on their own. It is important to understand how to pair protest tactics with acts of noncooperation and intervention that directly impact the systems and structures of injustice, or the power holders that need to act to correct an injustice.
The old adage, we have more power than we think, is true. Our opportunities for successful and effective struggle are numerous. But to access them, we need to use wise analysis and careful strategic planning. We need to understand what the destructive systems require to operate and then we must deny them those resources until the demand for change is met. Simple. Complex. Effective.
Think Outside the Protest Box
by Rivera Sun
Writer, Dandelion Salad
March 28, 2018
Protest. Petition. Call your senators. Nothing changes, right? No matter how large our demonstrations get, no matter how many millions of people write and petition politicians, no matter how many people get arrested in front of the White House or at our state capitols, it seems that our (supposedly) elected officials keep turning a blind eye and deaf ear to our cries for change.
In fact, there’s even a study out that shows that in twenty years on two thousand different bills, we, the People, got our bills through Congress a whopping 0.0% of the time. (Yes, you read that correctly. Zero point zero. In other words, “never-ever-not-once”.) Only businesses and rich people managed to get legislation passed. And sure, it looked like we had a few victories, so long as one of those other groups were aligned with us. But when we wanted something they didn’t, nope. Nada. No way. Congress just wasn’t listening.
You’d think we’d learn from twenty years of experience, but to judge from the emails I’m getting as an engaged and caring conscious citizen, we haven’t. I’m supposed to give my reps and senators a ring forty times a day on as many issues. I’ve been invited to enough DC mass demonstrations and marches this year to take up residence there. And I have to confess to a hefty dose of skepticism that voting this batch of politicians out of office in two to four years is the only way to advance social justice causes. In that timeframe, hundreds of school children could be murdered in mass shootings in schools, hundreds (and probably close to a thousand) black people could be shot dead by police, and dozens of aquifers will be contaminated with fracking toxins and oil spills – to name just a few of the problems that will wrack up casualties in the next couple years.
I’m rarely happy to be lied to, but in this case the truth holds more hope that my email list organizations are letting on. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be thrilled to know that we have literally dozens more options for pushing for change than we’re generally told. Getting foot-dragging corporate and oligarch controlled politicians to pass legislation is not our only option. (Thank goodness.)
So what can we do? For one thing, talk to your favorite nonprofits, organizations, and campaigns for change. Ask them to do a thorough strategic analysis of the problem you’re working on. Look for the all the power holders, not just the political ones. Your power holders on the issue may be investors, financiers, technicians, researchers, academics, social trend setters, police chiefs, school administrators, CEOs and shareholders, and many other types of groups. Analyze the problem carefully before you assume that politicians are the only ones with the power to change the equation. There are many books and online tools to help you with this work.
Do a Pillars of Support analysis to find your leverage points in the equation. Every injustice arises in a system. Find the points of intervention and cut off the flow of labor, money, resources, information, and/or functionality until your demand for change is met. Your best point of intervention may not be on the political front. For example, when Earth Quaker Action Team wanted to stop mountain top removal, they didn’t stop at calling their senators – they shut down the big bank that was financing the coal companies.
If you’re looking for ways to change a complex problem, one with many potential solutions that could be implemented at several levels, see if you can work for change on many fronts, building cumulative campaigns (even simultaneous cumulative campaigns if you want to get really fancy) to implement several sets of changes. For example, when peacebuilders in Gainesville, FL wanted to stop the school-to-prison pipeline, they worked to address the many layers of the problem, helping to start a restorative justice program in both the schools and the juvenile justice system, initiating police-youth dialogues, and working to resource kids and families to meet underlying needs, among other approaches.
Consider doing a Spectrum of Allies to identify your allies. You might be surprised at who/what you discover. Do you need the telecoms giants to back off from Net Neutrality? Net Neutrality supporters include some behemoths like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. If you pointed your campaign at shifting them from fairly passive allies to active allies (say, shutting down all search engine and advertisement traffic to the telecom giants), you’ll have mobilized some powerful allies. Other times, your allies pop up in less powerful groups that are, nonetheless, in powerful positions to serve as pivots of change, One example might be coders, who also advocate for Net Neutrality. Imagine an industry-wide coders’ strike for Net Neutrality … it might be a fairly rapid and swift way to shift the equation on this issue.
We have more power than we think. But we’ve got to go beyond the “protest-petition-call officials-vote” routine. Think outside that box, and you’ll find a world of creative solutions and strategies to tap into. I’d like to issue a challenge to all of our nonprofits and organizing groups to at least employ a one-for-one strategy. If you’re going to ask people to call public officials or join a large protest, add a second strategy that uses an organized, sustained, and strategic act of noncooperation and/or intervention targeted at a second group of power holders. The time has come to double down on strategy and make great strides toward change.
Rivera Sun is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection, The Roots of Resistance, and many other books, including a study guide to making change with nonviolent action. She is the cohost of Love (and Revolution) Radio, and a trainer in strategy for nonviolent movements. http://www.riverasun.com
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